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Dysfunctional eating

​​​​​​​​​​Eating disorders are complex, long-term illnesses that are sometimes misunderstood and ​misdiagnosed. Anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are the most common and are on the rise in the United States and worldwide.

People with anorexia nervosa have an intense fear of becoming fat, despite being slim or underweight. They are unable to accurately see their physical appearance. A person suffering from anorexia nervosa may have a body weight 15 percent or more below recommended levels. Young girls with the disorder may also go without a menstrual cycle for several months at a time.

Bulimia nervosa is characterized by the person eating large amounts of food periodically or having “binge” episodes. These individuals also are concerned about their weight and will take action to prevent weight gain from binge episodes by vomiting, taking laxatives or by dieting or exercising aggressively.

Both conditions are considered mental health disorders stemming from worries about too much body fat. No one knows the exact cause of either. Society’s glorification of thinness and prejudice against those who are overweight may propel younger women into dieting without a medical reason. Low self-esteem and a tendency toward perfectionism are personality traits that may also lead to an eating disorder.

All socioeconomic, ethnic and cultural groups are at risk. Research shows that more than 90 percent of those who have eating disorders are young women between the ages of 12 and 25. However, hundreds of thousands of boys and young men are affected by these conditions as well.

Sports such as gymnastics, cheerleading and wrestling that place an emphasis on weight may affect eating habits. Parents can watch for warning signs such as decreased self-confidence, increased emphasis on appearance, appearing to eat very little and increased use of the restroom following meals.

The earlier an eating disorder is diagnosed and treated, the better the chances of a full recovery. Frequently, these disorders occur with other mental health illnesses such as depression, substance abuse or anxiety disorders. Eating disorders can be long-term illnesses that may require long-term treatments to overcome. Treatment may include hospitalization, outpatient therapy and counseling to help restore normal body weight, educate about the effects of starvation and work on self-control and self-esteem.

Share comments or questions on this information. E-mail sports.medicine@marshfieldclinic.org​.